Bonusgate grand jury recommends sweeping reforms
Share with others:
HARRISBURG -- A "mad as hell" grand jury that investigated the Bonusgate scandal issued a list of recommendations improving a state Legislature they condemned as "broken," but was skeptical that any of the proposals would ever occur in a system so rife with corruption.
"The current operational structure and ingrained procedures of the Pennsylvania House Democratic and Republican caucuses are irretrievably broken and in desperate need of systemic change," the grand jurors wrote.
The self-serving culture of the Legislature's caucus system and patronage is so entrenched, the grand jury wrote, that the only way any change might take place is through a constitutional convention.
"The grand jury has determined beyond any doubt that the General Assembly, if left to its own devices, is utterly incapable of reforming itself," the report said.
The wide-ranging recommendations, filed Monday in Dauphin County Common Pleas Court, call for eliminating partisan caucuses, reducing a bloated staff and even changing the kinds of constituent services handled in district offices.
The grand jury found that legislative employees spent "an enormous amount of time working on political campaigns when they were supposed to be performing their legislative duties." They said "all campaign work on legislative time must be eliminated."
In a filing that accompanied the report, Judge Barry Feudale, supervisor of the grand jury, said grand jurors were "mad as hell" to hear from numerous witnesses that "no one's guilty because everybody does it."
For two years, the 23-member jury investigated a far-reaching scheme to use state resources to run political campaigns. At the core of the case was the distribution of more than $1.8 million in bonuses to legislative staffers who worked on House Democratic campaigns. Former state Rep. Mike Veon and former aides Annamarie Perretta-Rosepink and Brett Cott were found guilty in that case, which went to trial in January. Mr. Cott was sentenced Friday to 21 to 60 months imprisonment.
According to the report, grand jurors were appalled to learn about waste and abuse of taxpayer money during the investigation. They blamed the partisan caucus system which, they wrote, "eats up taxpayer resources with little to no tangible benefit to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania."
One witness testified that only about 350 of the House Democratic caucus's 911 staffers perform necessary functions. Grand jurors said they were appalled to find that lawmakers sometimes hired additional staff to make up for incompetence of existing aides.
Those hiring practices open opportunities for patronage jobs and ghost employees, the grand jury said in its report.
Jurors also took issue with a budgetary system that provides each caucus lump sums to be spent at the discretion of caucus leaders, creating excessive power and influence over rank-and-file lawmakers.
"Members who should be representing the interests of their constituents instead focus on pleasing their party leaders in order to curry favor," the report said. The system is "rife with the potential for abuse and must be eliminated."
Grand jurors also recommended that the Legislature should be considered part-time and that lawmakers' pay should be reduced. Full-time pay for a rank-and-file lawmaker is $78,315, far more than in most other states, the report said.
Grand jurors noted that the House convened only 72 days in 2006, 115 days in 2007, 72 days in 2008 and 147 days in 2009.
"While we recognize that some legitimate legislative work occurs on days that the House is not officially in session, it is certainly not enough to bring the total number of days worked into the full-time arena," the report said.
The report also mentions instances in which House leaders tried to give the appearance of doing legitimate work when they actually were debating bills that had already been passed. Doing so allowed lawmakers to collect per diems of up to $163 to cover the cost of food and lodging while in Harrisburg, grand jurors noted.
Among other recommendations, grand jurors said lawmakers should be limited to one district office. State Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, for example has four, grand jurors noted. Instead, he and other lawmakers could have office hours in public buildings such as libraries, schools and senior centers, the grand jury suggested.
The panel also recommended increasing the length of representatives' terms from two years to four, eliminating the use of compensatory time for staffers, prohibiting staff from splitting time between state and campaign jobs and banning state workers from campaign headquarters during regular working hours.
Some of those reforms would require a constitutional convention to enact, and that's fine with grand jurors who have no confidence the changes would be made through policy or legislation.
"Those in power in the General Assembly have too much to lose by enacting the reforms contemplated in this report and have proven themselves unable to perform their constitutional function: to serve the needs of their constituents, not themselves."
The 34-page report was completed in February. Its release was delayed so as not to influence the outcome of a trial involving four Bonusgate defendants, Judge Feudale said.
Copies of the 34-page report also were delivered to Gov. Ed Rendell and leaders of the four legislative caucuses.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House GOP, said late Monday his caucus agreed with many of the recommendations and already has started implementing some of them.
"For example, our leadership already banned the use of any vendor that has a contract with the [House Republican Campaign Committee], and vice versa," he said.Representatives of other caucuses could not immediately be reached for comment late Monday night.
First Published May 25, 2010 12:00 am